Japan: Hiroshima and Miyajima

Finally, some more photos from our Japan trip a month ago.

We took one day in Kyoto to do a day-trip to Hiroshima. It’s a bit of a ride, but a couple hours on the shinkansen (bullet train) is no big deal.

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Hiroshima means pretty much one thing to most Americans, but it’s also a really cool city in its own right. They have an awesome public transportation system of trams that they call a “Working Museum.” Its fleet is composed of trains of all kinds manufactured in Europe and Asia during the past half century. So you’ll be on a relatively modern, 1980s train, chugging down the street, and see a ca. 1950 train waiting at the intersection. Continue reading

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Japan: The Movie

Here’s a little movie I made about our trip to Japan. Consider it a follow-up to the previous batches of photos (Tokyo, Mt. Fuji), and a preview for some yet-to-come (Kyoto, Hiroshima, Miyajima).

I recommend clicking on the word “Vimeo” in the video box, as that will open up a new page with a larger viewing window.

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Japan: Mt. Fuji (kind of)

After five nights in Tokyo, we spent one night in Kawaguchiko, which is near the base of Mt. Fuji. We hoped—maybe even expected—that we’d get a glimpse of that iconic view. So we grabbed our Japan Rail passes and hit the road. It took only a couple of hours on a couple of trains to get there. The second one—the local, if you will—was a private rail company that had the most fantastic trains.

Here’s the one we rode on the way there.

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And on the way back:

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Fujikyu Railway, at your service.

A nice looking rail car from the outside, to be sure. But check out the interior.

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Those shelves on the left are an honest-to-god library (more useful to those who can read Japanese, but still). Those floors are real hardwood. Unbelievable! It was raining on the way back down the mountain, with very few people in the train, so it was like hanging out in a cozy study with a steadily changing view of the countryside. For example:

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For much of the trip, there was a single track up the mountain. At a few points during the descent, we had to wait in the station for the train going in the opposite direction to pass us before we could continue. (And, being Japan, this meant that it was punctual to the minute.)

Kawaguchiko, when we finally arrived, was not exactly what we had expected. It was lovely, for sure. It reminded me of being on a lake in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

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The view from our room.

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Recognize that tree? Hint: it’s the same tree as the one in the photo above. But at nighttime. So it’s dark. Hence the darkness.

But the weather was not, as you can see, terribly clear. And evidently it is more often cloudy than it is clear, which isn’t great for the casual visitor. It used to be that one could sometimes see Mt. Fuji all the way from Tokyo. Nowadays, you often can’t see Mt. Fuji from, well, the foot of Mt. Fuji.

We nonetheless checked out our hotel’s observatory to see what we could see.

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And here’s what we saw.

Image from here.

Har har har! We didn’t see that! It’s hard to believe that photo is real!

Here is the best picture I actually got.

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See that faint ascending slope on the right, disappearing into the clouds? Mt. Fuji! Beautiful!

As an aside: the staff of the Fujikyu Railway was very apologetic that we didn’t actually get to see Mt. Fuji, so they gave us some picture postcards with, well, the iconic picture-postcard image of the mountain. We also got some sweet candies with pictures of trains on them. End of aside.

The town itself was kind of kooky. It was clearly a bustling and super-popular retreat in, say, the mid-20th century. There are several nice, if dated, hotels that haven’t really been renovated since they were built. The town has a smattering of mediocre restaurants and a lot of kitschy shops selling souvenirs and the kind of stuff that kids want while on vacation. Soft-serve ice cream was easy to come by, for example. And some kid-friendly watercraft.

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We soon found out that the only dinner options in town appeared to be very expensive multi-course menus offered by the big hotels, which we weren’t really in the mood for. We figured we’d walk back down to the stretch of road that had the mediocre-looking lunch restaurants and grab a quick dinner there. So off we went down the hotel driveway, went to turn at the appropriate point, and found the street in complete darkness. Not a single restaurant was open for dinner. Gulp.

This was especially hilarious because of an earlier almost-snafu that would have left us penniless. Japan, you see, is a very cash-oriented society. The number of places that take credit cards is far smaller than you might expect. So we would visit an ATM pretty frequently just to make sure we had money for basic survival needs.

When we got to Kawaguchiko, we needed some more cash, so we went to a Lawson’s Depot (a chain of convenience store that, like 7-11, originated in the United States but is now Japanese, and which can be found all over the country) to use their ATM. Hey! Funny! It accepts only Japanese-issued cards! And there’s no other ATM in town! And the hotel has no suggestions! I really thought that we would have to have a dinner of whatever we could find at Lawson’s with our remaining $10.

Except there was, thank god, another option: at a 7-11 way out by the train station, which we found on our own. Whew. (Pro tip: All of the 7-11 stores in Japan have a “Seven Bank” ATM that accepts international cards.)

Anyway, the pitch-black street of restaurants was a real kick in the teeth after our earlier Triumph Over Adversity. Fortunately, after much walking around in the cold and dark, we finally found the one place that was open. It had distinctive decor.

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Hey, nice wagon wheel. And stuffed Pooh. And stuffed dolphin. And whatever psychedelic artworks are on the wall.

The whole resort  felt a little bit tired. Our room was perfectly fine, and fascinating in part because it was a Japanese/Western room: there was a Western-style bed, as well as a space where you could sleep Japanese style.

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But it was also just a little old. And, coincidentally, it was the single most expensive place we stayed the entire time we were there. More expensive that Tokyo, more expensive that Kyoto. Go figure.

So we didn’t see Mt. Fuji, alas, but we had a rather nice and quirky and relaxing 18 hours in Kawaguchiko. It was a nice little palate cleanser between the Tokyo and Kyoto. The next installment of the Japan trip, coming soon: Kyoto.

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Japan: Tokyo

So we recently got back from Japan, which was stupendous. Here’s Bunch of Photos, Part 1.

We went when we did because I had some time off due to Easter and, of course, Ching Ming. It happened to coincide with the cherry blossoms, though, which made for an extra-awesome visit since we got to take part in some serious hanami (cherry-blossom viewing). We had a heck of a time finding hotel rooms, even though we booked months ago, but when all was said and done it wasn’t nearly as crowded as we had expected. So, first off, some images of the cherry blossoms in Tokyo.

Japan is, as we are not the first to observe, a very fastidious place. Every public transportation station has a bathroom, and it is immaculate. And yes, they really do have these awesomely fancy toilet seats. (Which aren’t cheap, by the way—they are upwards of $500.)

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Our hotel room had one of the simpler models. Thank god.

Japan is also filled with vending machines. They are everywhere. The vast majority of them sell beverages (both hot and cold).

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See, the drinks on the left (with the red stripe below them) are hot; the right-hand (blue) ones are cold. The Suntory Boss hot coffee in cans is surprisingly good.

It’s rare to encounter one that sells snacks (like candy bars), though on a subway platform we did encounter this one that sells fresh apple slices. Three different kinds of fresh apple slices, mind you. We tried them, and they were awesome.

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And yeah, at some noodle shops you really do buy the ticket from a machine before approaching a server. This is very handy when, hypothetically, you need some time to figure out what the heck each dish is.

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Here are some photos of Tokyo at its Tokyoist.

And a few others.

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Checkerboard Hill and the crazy Kai Tak Airport approach

Care to guess what this is?

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That’s old, peeling paint. It’s much faded now, but it used to be bright orange and white. Continue reading

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MTR, part 4 (and final)

Okay, I’m done. A final few observations on the MTR that escaped mention in Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

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“Please mind the gap”? I think some Brits have been here.

The MTR is a good deal, especially for short trips (less so for longer ones). Like many other systems, the cost is based on distance. Since you have to use your Octopus card at entry and exit, the fare for your trip is deducted upon exit. This differs from a flat-fare system like Chicago’s, where you pay your fare upon entry and can then get out wherever you want without paying again. In that case, short trips subsidize the cost of longer ones. Let’s compare.

The 8-mile trip on the Chicago L from Uptown to the South Loop costs US$2.25. A comparable 8-mile trip on the MTR (from, say, Central to Kowloon Bay), costs HK$12.50, which is US$1.60. Nice.

When the distance gets longer, though, the flat-fare system is much better (obviously). You can take the CTA from O’Hare to downtown (about 15 miles) for only US$2.25. Heck, you can take the CTA from O’Hare to 95th street for the same fare, and that must be 30 miles. In Hong Kong, by contrast, the Airport Express from HKD to Central (about 21 miles) is HK$100. That’s US$12.90 (almost six times more expensive).

But the MTR is great for doing errands or sight-seeing, because it costs only a buck or two for short jaunts. Plus, the frequency of the trains means that you’re never wasting much time waiting on the platform.

Then there are the signs you just never expect to see.

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Brought to you by Deputy Downer. Seriously, how’s a guy supposed to move some kumquats and a roast suckling pig across town? Walk?

Now if you’d like to watch a mildly hilarious but fascinating documentary on the MTR, you’ve come to the right place. In 1986, the MTR released this half-hour film, Iron Underground, about the history of the MTR, culminating in the opening of the Island Line. There’s lots of great historical footage of Hong Kong in here. Inexplicably, the soundtrack of the first part is Beethoven’s Egmont Overture; of the second part, the German electronic music group Tangerine Dream.

So give it a look. You won’t be able to stop.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

Part 5:

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The MTR, Part 3

We are nearing the end of the line on my MTR ramblings. (Perhaps you missed Part 1 or Part 2?)

Hong Kong, like much of Asia, is very much into cutesy-pie cartoonish images (Hello Kitty, e.g.), so it's quite surprising that the Octopus card has, instead of a big-eyed cartoon octopus, a boring multicolored lemniscate.

Hong Kong, like much of Asia, is very much into cutesy-pie cartoonish images (Hello Kitty, e.g.), so I’m surprised that the Octopus card has a boring multicolored lemniscate instead of a big-eyed cartoon octopus.

The MTR is super easy to ride. For one thing, you use the Octopus card (akin to London’s Oyster Card). It’s a touch-and-go stored value card, which means you can leave it in your wallet and just touch your wallet to the turnstile as you enter and leave. You can also use your Octopus card on things like the Star Ferry, the Peak Tram, and at all kinds of stores (like 7-11). I use my OctoCard (no one calls it that, not even me) to pay my entrance fee at the CityU gym, and you can use it to pay overdue fines at the library. It is, in a word, awesomegreat.

Octopus card as the payment option at a vending machine and for newspapers. Genius.

You can use your Octopus card to buy a nice lemon tea or a newspaper. Or both. Genius.
(Images via Wikimedia and Calvin C.)

Funny side story about getting our Octopus cards. Right after breakfast on our first full day here, we went down into the Kowloon Tong station to get our cards. We go up to the kiosk with HK$300 in cash (a new card has $100 of credit on it, plus a $50 deposit), and Cate slides over the $300 and says “Two Octopus cards, please.” And the station attendant says “One-hundred fifty.” And Cate says “Yes, but I’d like two, please.” He says “One at a time.” So Cate looks at me askance and slides him $200. He gives her an Octopus card and $50 change. She hands me the Octopus card, then slides the $50 back to him along with our third $100 bill. He calmly takes it without a word and hands her another Octopus card. We still don’t know why he couldn’t hand us two cards at once.

MTR stations are clean, well-lit, and well-signed. They’re also very safe—none of the not-after-dark sketchiness of some (or all) of the stations in other systems of the world. Here’s Central.

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As seen on a Saturday morning. It’s rarely this empty.

If you can read a map, you can ride the MTR. And inside almost all of the trains are these handy lighted signs that show which station you’re at, which is next, and at transfer (British English “interchange”) stations also flash the lights of the line you can change to. Plus everything is announced over clear and functioning speakers (hear that, CTA?) in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English. This offers an excellent way to learn how to pronounce some Cantonese.

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Departing Admiralty, the sign shows the direction we’re heading, as well as lighting up all of the future stops. This map, incidentally, is a miracle of design. It renders most (not all) of a large, sprawling network into one long rectangle that is still intelligible. Our home station, Kowloon Tong, is at the upper right corner.

The MTR was also cleverly designed with cross-platform transfers. What this means is that a given platform does not necessarily offer access to the same line in different directions, but it does mean that you can transfer lines without having to go up or down stairs.

Look at that map. If you’re traveling on the red (Tsuen Wan) line from Admiralty and want to go to Kowloon Tong (on the green Kwun Tong line), you can transfer at Mong Kok by simply walking across the platform—that is, on that platform, both the red and green line trains are headed north. Same goes for traveling in the opposite direction—you change from the green to the red at Mong Kok, because both trains at that platform are traveling south. So at Mong Kok, the green/red interchange platforms are stacked up vertically, with the northbound trains together and the southbound trains together.

But, if you want to go from, say, Kowloon Tong (green line) to Sham Shui Po (red line) to buy some cut-rate printer toner, you transfer at Prince Edward, not just because it’s closer but because the trains are stacked differently. Here, the southbound green line train and the northbound red line train are on the same platform, and vice versa on the other platform. So this means that somewhere between Prince Edward and Mong Kok, there’s a switcheroo. Fascinating.

It is also profitable. Very profitable.

The MTR is a private corporation. (Prior to 2001, the MTR was wholly owned by the Hong Kong government.) It’s listed on the Hang Seng  Index (MTRC), so buy some shares if you want to. It’s one of the few profitable public transit systems in the world not only from the money that fares brings in, but also because it is heavily involved in land development. The MTR develops lands near its stations into housing estates and shopping malls, which it can then (of course) advertise in the MTR to the millions of people who ride it each day.

The stations themselves are also prime real estate. Every MTR station has shops in it, and we’re not talking just newsstands (though there are those too). We’re talking high-end stuff: food, clothing, cosmetics, banking, etc.

Here are a few in Central:

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I always see this sign as reading "Catullus" at first glance.

I always see this sign as reading “Catullus” at first glance. Delicious cakes, odi et amo.

* – * – * – * – *

Next up: it’s so inexpensive! Also, an old-timey documentary!

kowloon tong-sign

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